“We are now a force and you are nothing.” - Inside the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal
How athletes stood up to their abuser in historical trial.
by Alessandra Puglisi
Courtesy of Senate Democrats via Creative Commons.
TRIGGER WARNING: this article contains mentions of sexual abuse.
“I just signed your death warrant” the chilling words of Judge Rosemarie Aquilina boomed in a Michigan courtroom in January 2018 when she sentenced Larry Nassar, the 56-year-old former U.S. Gymnastics physician, to what was essentially a life sentence in prison.
Nassar was accused of sexually abusing more than 250 athletes over two decades, dating back as far as 1992, in what is today known as the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal. Nassar has been named in several lawsuits filed by athletes who accused him of sexually abusing them under the pretence of medical treatment for more than 14 years.
The Indianapolis Star, a daily newspaper based in Indianapolis, was the first newspaper to report the news and continued to follow the investigation for more than nine months. The first woman to publicly accuse him in 2016 and allow the IndyStar to use her name was Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast. Denhollander was only 15-year old when Nassar abused her and she was 32 when she finally found the strength to come forward and tell her story. Rachael Denhollander’s confession was the first one to have a massive impact on the public. However, at least seven other women accused Nassar of sexual abuse over a twenty-year period before Denhollander and had been left unheard.
The investigation of the Indianapolis Star revealed that Nassar had not been the first coach to be accused of committing abuses and getting away with it for a long period of time.
It was found out, in fact, that USAG mostly helped to cover sexual misconduct by using a system that relocated predatory coaches from one gym to the other and allowing them to remain undetected.
USAG has also been known for dismissing the warnings about coaches on several occasions since the early 1990s. Following a lawsuit in 2013, USAG officials admitted that allegations of sexual abuse were routinely dismissed as hearsay unless they came directly from a victim or victim's parent in a written report.
Marisa Kwiatkowski, an investigative reporter working for the Indianapolis Star and at the forefront of the case, requested from the court the documents regarding the case of William McCabe, a Georgia coach who was convicted of child abuse in 2006. A few years prior, USAG had already received multiple complaints against McCabe from athletes to gym owners but dismissed the allegations and allowed McCabe to keep coaching for the next seven years. In 2006, McCabe pleaded guilty to federal charges of sexual exploitation of children and making false statements. He is now serving a 30-year sentence in prison. However, it quickly became clear that McCabe was only the tip of the iceberg.
The documents requested by Kwiatkowski showed how USAG had dealt with previous cases concerning various sexual misconduct allegations that were made against coaches over a 10-year period from 1996 to 2006. The documents disclosed that at least 54 coaches had been accused of sexual abuse. In most cases, the allegation had been dismissed; on one occasion a regional chairman even spoke in support of the sexual offenders, asking the USAG president to allow the coaches to keep their membership and continue with their careers. Since then, USAG has stated that 37 of the 54 coaches named in the documents have been permanently banned from the sport. But the worst was yet to come.
Following the accusations of Rachael Denhollander, over 250 women and young girls came forward to confess the abuses perpetrated by Nassar over the years, most of them were minors when the events occurred.
Nassar was a licensed osteopathic physician and, additionally to his role of national team doctor for USAG, he was a faculty member at the Michigan State University running a clinic and gymnastic club there. Despite claiming that he had retired from his role within USAG, it was later confirmed that USAG had actually fired Nassar in 2015 after some athletes expressed “concerns” regarding his behaviour. The University of Michigan also fired Nassar in September 2016, the same month in which Rachael Denhollander publicly accused him of sexual abuse for the first time.
In February 2017, the American television news magazine 60 Minutes interviewed former gymnasts and Olympians Jeanette Antolin, Jessica Howard and Jamie Dantzscher. During the interview, each of the women also accused Larry Nassar and confessed that many of the abuses had occurred at the Károlyi Ranch. The Károlyi Ranch was the official facility where the USA women’s national gymnastics team trained, and it was run by married couple Béla and Márta Károlyi. The ranch was also officially recognized by USAG as the Olympic training facility for the group of gymnasts who were set to compete at the following Olympics. The ranch was located in Walker County, Texas, an isolated location that made it difficult to reach and be connected with the outside world. Parents were also strictly forbidden to visit the ranch while training took place. Antolin, Howard and Dantzscher told 60 Minutes that the atmosphere at the ranch was one of fear and the environment was often emotionally abusive. Furthermore, they accused the Károlyis of knowing what Larry Nassar was doing to the athletes but turning a blind eye on it. In January 2018, while Nassar’s trial was still ongoing, USAG terminated the lease for the Károlyi Ranch. Later that month, the ranch announced its permanent closure on the website, and the criminal investigation was passed to the Texas Rangers Division.
Between 2017 and 2018, a big number of athletes came forward to testify against Nassar at the trial. Many of them had been part of various National and Olympic teams through the years. Amongst them were Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Maggie Nichols, McKayla Maroney, Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber, Sabrina Vega, Madison Kocian, and Kyla Ross. It was also revealed that Sarah Jantzi, Maggie Nichols’ coach at the time, had overheard Nichols talking to fellow athletes Aly Raisman and Alyssa Baumann about the concerning practices that Larry Nassar performed on her. Both Raisman and Baumann said that Nassar had done the same things to them, but did not realize until later that he was disguising sexual abuse under medical practice. Following the conversation, Sarah Jantzi immediately alerted Nichols’ parents and reported Nassar to USAG in 2015, but the allegations were dismissed at the time.
The 24th of January 2018, Judge Aquilina sentenced Larry Nassar to prison for 40 to 175 years. In a week-long sentencing hearing, more than 150 women stood up and spoke out in a Michigan courtroom, telling the whole world their story. “Larry, you do realize now that we — this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time — are now a force, and you are nothing.” Aly Raisman’s words resonated powerfully. Raisman had already previously attacked USAG for their poor handling of the situation regarding the scandal: “Whether or not he did it to a gymnast, they still knew him. Even if he didn’t do it to you, it’s still the trauma and the anxiety of wondering what could have happened. I think that needs to be addressed.” She stressed that everyone in the sport matters in the same way: “It doesn’t matter if you’re the Olympic champion or you’re an eight-year-old that goes to gymnastics wherever you are in the US. Every single kid is important and I want USA Gymnastics to do a better job with that.” Raisman added how crucial it was for USAG to create a safe program that promoted change and to contact all the families of the athletes that came forward to offer help.
Investigations continued after Nassar’s trial, which led to the resignation of the entire board of USAG in 2018, including former president Steve Penny. In 2019, USAG appointed Li Li Leung as the new president and CEO. She was the fourth person to be hired for that role after Steve Penny, Kerry Perry and Mary Bono all resigned. Leung said that she hopes to use her experience — most notably as the vice-president of the NBA — in sports and business to create a safe environment for athletes to thrive in. “Like everyone, I was upset and angry to learn about the abuse and the institutions that let the athletes down. I admire the courage and strength of the survivors.” Leung said, as she vowed to make it a priority to see that athletes’ claims are heard and resolved.